After years in the business I’ve seen and heard literally thousands of players work their way around six strings. From well-known guitar gods to your average weekend warrior and everything in between, I’ve heard them. And if there is one single trait that consistently separates the great from the good, and the good from the not-so-good, that trait is polish. Whether in their articulation, note choice, tone, or even stage presence, there is always some touch of refinement present in the playing of a great guitarist that elevates them and sets them apart. Yes, even the raunchiest, sloppiest greats have refined that raunchiness to an art, I promise.
Where does this polish come from? Quite simply: details. We may not always be able to vocalize why Guitarist A plays something better than Guitarist B, but we can definitely hear it. More importantly, we can feel it. And much of this feel comes down to the tiniest little details, sometimes details that even the artist may not be consciously aware of! No matter what your level of expertise, just a little focus on the little things will go a long way toward improving your ability, presentation, and that ever elusive vibe in your playing.
One often overlooked, but intensely important technique in the guitar repertoire is vibrato. Vibrato is, quite simply, a periodic fluctuation in pitch. A controlled waver, if you will. Generally on guitar, vibrato is accomplished by performing a series of repeated string bends that are usually smaller in terms of depth than full or half-bends, but not always, as you’ll see. There are other techniques that are used on a more limited manner. I’ve even been known to coax some vibrato out of my guitar by literally bending the neck of my guitar over and over. I do not recommend trying this. If you do try it: you did NOT get the idea from me.
From the wild, frantic vibrato of an 80’s style shredder to soft, vocal-like vibratos that make lead lines literally sing, there are myriad techniques that fall under the banner of “vibrato.” Mastering them, as well as learning when and how to apply them, will go a long way toward improving your ‘feel’ and ‘polish’ both on stage and in the studio. To hear a general example of lead playing with a variety of vibrato techniques check the first audio example.
Any vibrato is essentially defined by two parameters. Let’s take a look:
The depth, or width, of a vibrato is essentially the range of tones that the vibrato covers. Vibrato can be used melodically by fluctuating between two distinct pitches, or expressively in a less precise manner to add a vocal-like quality to the note. When listening to the mp3 example, pay close attention to how different these vibratos sound and what sort of emotions they convey. More importantly, as you try to emulate them, pay close attention to how they feel under your fingers.
Vibrato 1 Playlist: Â½ step, 1 whole step, short/sweet vibrato, huge Zakk Wylde mode/wild vibrato
The first two examples are melodic vibrato: the first being Â½ step, and the second being one whole step. Examples three and four are less precise, expressive vibratos. As you can hear, wider vibratos seem to be more ‘dramatic’ than shallower techniques, and the melodic techniques seem to feel more like a series of distinct notes when compared to the expressive techniques, which give the impression of a single, held note.
The period, or speed, of a vibrato is how quickly the pitch of the note wavers. This can also be used in two different manners: rhythmically, where the note fluctuates with the beat of the song, or expressively where the vibrato is used more as an effect and the precise rhythm is not the focus. When listening to this next audio example, again pay close attention to the sound and feel of each technique.
Vibrato 2 Playlist: 1/8th note, 1/16th note, slow, fast
Notice how the first two rhythmic vibratos have a very different feel than the following two expressive techniques, but both add a particular character or spice to the note. Also notice that the speed of the vibrato is more or less constant on the rhythmic vibratos, whereas the speed is more fluid and free in the expressive examples.
These two parameters do not need to remain constant throughout a passage, or even through the entirety of a single note! Experiment! Techniques such as delaying the start of vibrato, gradually slowing down or speeding up the period, or even quickly switching from one technique to another (such as using a rhythmic, melodic vibrato on a note, and switching to an expressive vibrato as the note tails off) can all be used to alter the feel and impact of a passage.
Now that we know what components make up a vibrato technique, we can start to imagine some of the endless possibilities in which we can combine them. To illustrate, let’s examine a few examples in a more musical context.
First, we’ll explore a two-bar lead phrase, from a softer, rock-ballad style song entitled Me and You by my band After The Crash. I’ll demonstrate three ways to play this line that all lend a significantly different feel to it. See if you can spot what I’m doing differently.
Vibrato 3 Playlist: “Me & You” line – One no vibrato, one delayed vibrato, one delayed whole-tone vibrato
Give up? The only thing I’m changing is the vibrato on the last note. That’s right; one simple note can have a very large impact on how the passage is presented to the listener!
The first pass has no vibrato on the last note: notice how it sort of hangs there in space? This can sound a little bit ‘rough’ or ‘raunchy,’ but in some forms of rock/pop music that may be precisely what a guitarist is aiming for! The second pass has a fairly quick, shallow vibrato that is not applied immediately on the attack of the note, instead beginning around Beat 2 of the measure. This gives the line a very vocal, singing sort of quality. The third pass has a rhythmic, whole-tone vibrato which makes the vibrato actually become a part of the melody itself, almost as if this version of the passage is extended and contains more notes than the other two.
What a difference a note makes!
Next is a four-bar lead phrase from a guitar solo in a much heavier rock song; the After The Crash cover version of Uninvited by Alanis Morissette . Notice the different feels that are attained merely by changing vibrato techniques.
Vibrato 4 Playlist: “Uninvited” solo first 4 bars – first no vibrato, second rhythmic/subtle, third “Zzkk Wylde”
In this file the first example contains virtually no vibrato at all which makes the passage seem relatively understated, when compared to the next two deliveries. The second example contains fairly shallow, mostly rhythmic vibratos which make the passage stand out more while still feeling very controlled. The third example (my personal favorite) uses fast, fairly wide, dramatic vibratos to gives the whole line a more aggressive, dramatic feel which makes the passage feel a bit ‘raunchy’ or almost ‘out-of-control,’ which could be either good or bad, depending on the context.
The choice of vibrato technique on any given note can have a profound effect on any guitar line, and is something that needs to be considered at all times to maximize the emotional impact that you’re trying to achieve. So, next time you’re playing a lead line whether it’s a few notes or a few hundred, think about how your vibrato technique affects the feel of the line, experiment with a few of the many possibilities, and shake those strings to a whole new level of performance polish. Your listeners may not be able to tell you why you sound so great but I guarantee that they’ll feel it. I promise; you’ll feel it too.
About the Author
Kenny Masters is a professional guitarist from Chicago, IL. He is currently performing with national touring rock band After The Crash, and relies on Jet City Amps to deliver bad-ass rock tone every single night. For more info check him out on Myspace or catch an After The Crash show in a town near you!